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What’s a Landau Roof? A History of the Luxury Car Vinyl Roof Treatment

The life and death of the classiest vinyl you can't spin on a turntable.

Leather upholstery has long been a signifier of luxury and class within the cabins of the world's finest automobiles. For a surprising stretch of time that same attitude applied to the outside of the car, too—or at least, a reasonable vinyl facsimile thereof. The 'landau' roof, that puzzlingly persistent example of wearing your vehicle's underwear on the outside, graced the coachwork of dozens of brands from the 1960s all the way to the late 1990s, with the torch picked up by the aftermarket long after OEMs had abandoned the affair.

As it turns out, the landau top has a history that predates the automobile, haunting the industry like a ghost long after its relevance had vanished into the stylistic ether. Although the memories of this out-of-time accessory might have faded over the past few years, if the past is any guidepost we're never that far away from a resurrection of one the industry's least-likely status symbols.

Different Horses For Different Courses

Once upon a time, when horses ruled the roads, one of the fanciest carriages money could buy was called a 'landau,' named after the German city whose coach builders put them on the map. Its claim to fame was the ability to keep occupants dry in the rain while also providing unfettered access to sunshine on more temperate travel days, accomplished by way of a folding fabric roof that covered the entire passenger area (while often locking the driver out in the elements).

When the first automobiles began vying with the equine competition for the affections of modern travelers, most early body design drew from the carriage playbook. This made sense for multiple reasons: many early cars and trucks were built by companies that had made their fortunes first by serving the horse-drawn market, and so they merely transposed that styling ethos into the internal combustion era.

Then there was the comfort level that customers had with wagons and buggies, a factor that pushed them to more readily embrace the familiar (wooden bodies, fabric roofs) alongside the strange (loud, smoke-belching gas-burners). This led to numerous interpretations of the landau concept, typically in the form of a half-shell that opened up the view through the windshield while keeping rain and snow at bay (and eventually graduating to a fabric-covered mullet for the steel rooflines of higher end models).

From Fake Convertibles To Factory Cheap-Outs

Eventually styling trends evolved and painted steel and tin largely took over from the deciduous corpses that had formed the original backbone of automotive design, leaving only a trickle of vinyl-clad cars available to the masses. As with all things fashion, however, the cyclical exhumation of the past played no small role in the various shapes and silhouettes that crowded America's car lots, which meant that after only a few decades of slumber the landau concept was primed for a revival.

The chief instigator was Cadillac, which turned to the modern marvel that was vinyl (one of the many exciting hydrocarbon-based products of industrial chemistry that emerged after World War II), to lend what it felt was a touch of old-timey class to the 1956 Eldorado coupe. The Eldorado's vinyl roof pulled double contextual duty, as it also allowed less-moneyed buyers to simulate the look of the fabric-top found on the ultra-expensive Biarritz convertible edition of the car.

It wasn't long before the rest of Detroit fell in line behind the luxury leader, and by the early 1960s a long list of brands were marketing their own soft-touch, well-padded vinyl tops festooned with buttons and snaps intended to evoke the feel of rag tops from days gone by. It was Ford that revived the 'landau' name in particular, adding it to the lineup-leading Thunderbird in the early '60s as its own trim level (and also making vinyl available on the much cheaper Falcon Futura). The T-Bird even came with 'landau bars' glued to the side, a visual representation of old-school carriage hinges.

The public was all too willing to buy-in on the concept that exposed vinyl was the next best thing to acres of interior wood in terms of showing off four-wheeled wealth and taste. Predictably, this led to an explosion of landau interpretation across nearly every slice of the market, with even experimental models like the 1963 Chrysler Turbine car availing themselves of a vinyl veneer.

While the pillow-like implementation remained a constant among high-end nameplates, stiffer vinyl shells quickly spread throughout the low-buck muscle car and adjacent segments. Divorced from the soft texture of the landau, these designs invaded showrooms to cover everything from wagons to pickups to sedans with a hardened canopy that, in the cases of Mopar's Mod Tops and Floral Tops, sometimes even blasted the eye with printed paisley or shark tooth patterns that frequently matched the interior upholstery.

As an added bonus for car companies, cheap vinyl top installations saved big bucks at the body shop by concealing welds and other aspects of the unfinished metal lurking underneath. This benefit certainly wasn't passed on to the customer, as torn or carelessly sealed vinyl exposed unpainted metal to moisture, allowing rust to spread like a hidden tumor across the roof and pillars.

Portholes A-Plenty

By the time the 1970s arrived, executive styling trends took a distinctly nautical shift as portholes (or more formally, 'opera windows' when including their rectangular brethren) began to peek out from the c-pillars of the mightiest land yachts available from the likes of Lincoln, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and even AMC. Still a shorthand for luxury, the formal landau top (a term that was now more liberally sprinkled on marketing materials, alongside look-alike 'Brougham' models) entered its imperial phase, festooning all manner of personal coupes and barge-like sedans in the most hallowed spot of each automaker's respective showrooms.

It was here that the landau's momentum began to coast to an ignominious halt. As the '80s approached and Detroit's down-sizing began, fewer models featured what was increasingly seen as a reminder of an overly-baroque, and uncomfortably excessive automotive era. Although smaller fare (such as the AMC Eagle) could still be found with a prominent vinyl cap, increasingly it was carry-overs at the upper reaches of an automaker's lineup (such as the Oldsmobile 98, the Ford Crown Victoria, and the Chrysler LeBaron) where vinyl clung on. The 1996 Cadillac Fleetwood and Buick Roadmaster were the final American automobiles to deliver the landau look straight from the factory.

What Goes Around, Comes Around…The Aftermarket

Unfortunately for modern esthetes, the aftermarket wasn't nearly as willing to walk away from what it perceived to be a cash cow of customers aching for their vinyl fix. The end result was a cottage industry of poorly conceived, and even more worse-fitting fabric hairnets buttoned onto the rear quarters of everything from Eldorados to Town Cars to Toyota Camrys by owners eager to relive a bygone era of automotive styling as awkwardly as possible. The further vehicle design drifted from the boxy shapes of yore, the less convincing these faux-landau kits became, culminating in a feature that today more often leads to shudders rather than admiration from passersby.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the continuation landau phenomenon seemed to find its locus in Florida, a hotbed of retirees living out their nostalgia for a bygone automotive era. It makes sense, then, that as that population ages out of driving, the lust for landau has fallen to its lowest level in decades, biding its time in the background while the endless carousel of public taste continues to spin.

That ticking you hear? It's the clock counting down to the 2035 Cadillac Escalade Brougham EV.